Earlier this year, I was reminded of a scene from The Sopranos when Carmela Soprano and her lady friends ponder the merits of Hillary Clinton over pasta and white wine. It is 2001, and the former first lady's name comes up on the subject of their husbands and their many goomars, Italian-American slang for mistress. Angie Bonpensiero suggests that they could all perhaps “take a page from her book,” seeing that Clinton refused to let her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky shake her—in fact, the episode aired after Clinton won an unlikely senate race in New York.
However, Mrs. Soprano, all too familiar with the matter, disagrees: “To be humiliated in public and then walk around smiling all the time,” she scoffs. “That is so false.”
“All I know is, she stuck by him and put up with the bulls--t,” Bonpensiero continues. “And in the end, what did she do? She set up her own little thing.”
“She did,” echoes Gabriella Dante. “She took all that negative s--t he gave her and spun it into gold. You gotta give her credit.”
Mrs. Soprano chews this over for a moment, then changes her mind. “That’s true, isn’t it?” she says. “She’s a role model for all of us.” The ladies nod.
Fifteen years later, Americans would still be arguing at the dinner table over whether or not Hillary Clinton smiles too much or too little, whether she acts out of self-interest or for the common good, whether she is a role model for women or a warning of what can happen when you get too ambitious. But the exchange between Soprano and co. reflects just how ahead-of-the times David Chase's series was, and how relevant it continues to be, particularly in a year when the winner of the presidential election was a man whose take-no-prisoners, shamelessly macho persona was also forged on television with boasts of grabbing women with impunity.
In the near decade since its conclusion, The Sopranos has remained a favorite to re-watch because it's one of television's best inventions, a grand Shakespearean drama full of universal themes. But 2016 was the year we all tuned back in to The Sopranos because it's a show that harkens back to a more rose-tinted era, when even the "bad guys" adhered to some understandable sense of principle, when family meant more than a business partnership, and when the American Dream still seemed within grasp.
There was lots of great TV in 2016: American Crime Story, Westworld, and Stranger Things to name a few. But these shows were partly successful because they reflected the tension of the last eight years, the distrust in government and institutions and, in particular, the demographic shifts that have unnerved great swaths of the country. The Sopranos, on the other hand, recalls a more innocent time when the greatest cause of national concern was a sex scandal in the Oval Office.
Television shows this year also lacked redeemable villains. Through his many therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, we learn that Tony Soprano is a mobster with serious mommy and daddy issues, which helps explain his problems with anger and authority. In this way, he paved the path for future flawed alpha-males like Don Draper on Mad Men and Walter White on Breaking Bad, whose transgressions were (almost) always forgiven because viewers had a window into their complex and fragile psyches. Vanity Fair describes this forgive-and-forget relationship as a "whiplashing slide down the super-ego-ego-id ladder and back up again." In 2016, however, there was no sympathizing with the Demogorgon.
While shows like The Sopranos crack open powerful individuals to reveal what they're made of, they also place their wants and needs in a larger historical context—unlike in 2016, when the mudslinging of the election and the rise of "fake news" turned everyone, genuine heros and villains, into one-dimensional characters. Tony takes on the anxious burden of being Number One because that is what his father did, and his father before him. To have the name Anthony Soprano means something, and his every move is defined by the past, present, and future of la famiglia.
With dynasties come tried-and-true traditions, and although the Sopranos operated outside of the law, they followed their own strict moral code, which was meant to be upheld by each passing generation. Blood was loyalty. Lives were not taken without just cause or retribution, authority was respected, dues were paid, and even your greatest enemies got a kiss on the cheek. If you followed these rules, you could be a made man—unlike today, when leaders are celebrated for not playing the game, and all it takes to win is a few tweets and some clever merch.
There's something redemptive, too, about the Sopranos' origin story. Immigrants, and always conscious of their roots, they figured out how to make a life for themselves in an America that didn't want them to succeed. In the end, it may be that we continue to fall for The Sopranos because it is about the unapologetic pursuit of the American Dream—whatever that may look like.
When Tony isn't skulking around being an Italian mob boss, he's slumped on his couch watching old western movies and shows on The History Channel about great American battles. He sees himself as a general—a leader of men fighting to preserve the land of their fathers. "We're soldiers," he tells Melfi. "Soldiers don't go to hell. It's war. Soldiers kill other soldiers. We're in a situation where everyone involved knows the stakes and if you are going to accept those stakes, you've got to do certain things. It's business."
Conflating business with politics — sound familiar?
But unlike our President-elect, Tony learns throughout the series that life, liberty, and happiness cannot simply be bought or won with force. He never stops chasing the American Dream, but he also learns to compromise. And even for his soldiers, success in America no longer looks like a straight line. His capo Vito Spatafore, for example, who is revealed to be gay in the later seasons, finds new meaning in the phrase, "Live Free or Die." So, it may be that what keeps us coming back to The Sopranos is its acknowledgement of the changing ways in which we "do what we gotta do" to achieve not just success, but peace of mind.
Personally, I started re-watching The Sopranos this year because it brought me metaphorically closer to the family I grew apart from throughout the election. It was a reminder that sometimes, people are the way they are and do the things they do because of where they come from. And that despite making bad choices, they are not bad people. Can they change? Maybe not, but they set the scene for the next generation.
Unlike his father, who takes out his anger on those close to him, Anthony Soprano Jr.—who also has the "Soprano curse" of depression—turns his frustration towards politics and the outside world. He sits in his room brooding over what he reads on Al Jazeera about George W. Bush and the war in Afghanistan. At the dinner table, he pontificates: “It’s, like, America! This is still where people come to make it. It’s a beautiful idea. And what do they get? Bling; come-on’s for s--t they don’t need and can’t afford.”
Ironically, in one of the final episodes of the series, Anthony Soprano Jr. announces that he wants to join the Air Force in order to eventually become Donald Trump’s personal pilot. But thankfully, like everything else in his adolescent mind, this idea is fleeting.
Meadow Soprano, on the other hand, is the always-politically-correct older sibling who goes to Columbia University, volunteers at the South Bronx Law Center, and eventually decides to go to law school over medical school. In the series finale titled, “Made in America,” she admits to her father: “You know what really turned me [to law school]? Seeing the way Italians are treated. It’s like mom says. And if we can have our rights trampled like that, image what it’s like for recent arrivals. If I hadn’t seen you dragged away all those times by the F.B.I., I probably would have been a boring, suburban doctor.”
In this way, Meadow takes all the “negative sh--t” her father gave her and spins it into gold. You gotta give her credit.
In the infamous, final scene of The Sopranos, Meadow is potentially the last person Tony sees before everything goes black. It begins with him sitting in a classic American diner booth waiting for his family members to arrive one-by-one. He selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing" on the jukebox and orders onion rings—the best in the state, it should be noted. But, alas, these are not the good ol' days. The episode aired in 2007 with the Bush era ending, but also with two wars overseas and a looming financial crisis. Tony has come a long way, but still feels the need to look over his shoulder. Carmela arrives, followed by Anthony and a potentially suspicious man, but Meadow is late, building the suspense. When she finally enters, Tony looks up one last time, and the song cuts short on the chorus. As anyone watching on June 10, 2007 will tell you, Americans jumped off their couches thinking that their televisions had died, too.
By the end, nearly everyone related to Tony is either whacked or killed by the man himself. Even Junior Soprano, who started it all, can’t even remember running the town with his brother. But despite all this, his loyal capo, Paulie Gualtieri continues to salute; Carmela Soprano, never stops believing in sin and salvation; Anthony Soprano Jr. chooses life; and Meadow Soprano makes lemonade.
Even the F.B.I. gets on Tony’s team when they’re forced to switch their attention to counterterrorism. Earlier in the final episode, while watching a tape of an Afghani soldier, Agent Dwight Harris is informed that Tony whacked the guy who was trying to kill him, whom Harris illegally tipped him off to earlier. “Damn!” he says, over-excitedly. “We’re going to win this thing!”
As viewers, perhaps to our own demise, we never stopped believing in all that The Sopranos stands for, which is why we continue to watch it today. But in 2016 we were also forced to believe that men like Tony Soprano still exist and still hold all the power.
In 2017, however, I will look instead at those like Carmela, Meadow, and Anthony Soprano Jr., who not only always chose to believe, despite the ugliness and the setbacks, but who also refused to be complicit. They’re role models for all of us.
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